Yasmin Levy: Passion from exile

Yasmin Levy's music has a past as troubled as its present. Phil Meadley reports
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The Independent Culture

"Ladino songs are more than 500 years old, and were set down aurally from generation to generation," she says. "My father used to go from one Sephardic family to another recording every person who had something to sing. Some were so old that they couldn't control their voices, but because he was a musician he was able to interpret the melody and lyrics.

"Now I think I'll do this kind of music for as long as I live," she says, "because I'm one of the few people who can sing Ladino. It's a dying language, and that's why it's so important to help preserve it."

Levy, now 27, hit the ground running with her debut,Romance & Yasmin and as nominated for a BBC World Music Award. Unlike most Israeli artists, she wasn't singing in Hebrew and the lyrics were set to an Arabic backdrop. "My father came from Turkey and so the original arrangements for these songs are Turkish. They were one of the first countries to welcome Jews with open arms, and they lived in peace for 500 years"

In Israel these songs are accompanied by guitar and performed in a European style. "All of a sudden I came along with uds and kanuns, and insisted this was the way the music should be played. It didn't necessarily endear me to the Sephardic community, but still I had 20-year-olds coming along to my concerts who had nothing to do with this culture, and it was amazing."

For La Juderia, her new album, she has delved deep into Ladino and Flamenco culture. Levy explains that the Jews arrived in Spain in 711, the year of the Arab conquest. Expelled by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand after the Christian conquest of 1492, they left behind the voice of the cantor - the Haza - while Muslims contributed the Muezzin's prayer from the mosques. When the gypsies arrived from India they amalgamated the two vocal forms, and Flamenco emerged.

"When I was in Seville I spent time in 'La Juderia' [the Jewish quarter]. I felt at home, and when I sang Ladino songs to my Flamenco teacher Paco Taranto he said he thought I'd returned to Spain. It became a mission to show that the roots of Flamenco were based in religious Jewish songs."

Aside from her stunning looks, Levy's biggest asset is her voice, which is versatile, sensuous, and brimming with emotion. "When I was 17 I went to see a friend of my mother who was recording a Sephardic album. She wanted me to record some old songs, but I didn't think I knew them until she showed me one of my father's books."

She has no wish to leave Jerusalem, despite the city's troubles. "Jerusalem is old and tired, and sad, but I grew up in this town, and I couldn't be anywhere else.

"I'm happy to work with Palestinian musicians," she adds. "I think it's very important, it's our duty. I think music is the only common language. We like each other, we respect each other, and we can learn from each other. Of course the conflict affects us all. But I really hope it will change someday."

On stage, Levy is confident, seductive, and playful. She oozes passion when singing "Noches, Noches" or "Naci en Álamo (Vengo)", accompanied by guitar, violin, and percussion. One of the highlights is "De Edad De Kinze Anyos" ("Since The Age Of Fifteen"), which makes full use of a Middle Eastern hip-swaying, percussive groove.

After five years of performing, she believes she is only just starting to hit her stride. "People still ask me why my music is so sad and dramatic," she says. "I say that I like sad songs and sad music. Although I have this huge sadness that I have no explanation for, I say to myself that if I ever changed I would never be able to write the same way again."

Yasmin Levy plays WOMAD Rivermead Reading on Sunday 31 July

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